The Weightless World
Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Anthony Trevelyan writes about The Weightless World from Galley Beggar Press.
The rooftop bar of the Godwin Hotel in Colaba offers a remarkable view of Mumbai’s skyline. One side shows immense imperial architecture; another, corporate glitter; another still, tousled tenement blocks, all crazy strings of laundry and fuzz-blackened A/C units. It is early 2009, the first day of my third trip to Mumbai since 2005, and I already know that the novel I’m going to write about India is going to start here, on the Godwin’s roof terrace, and with this — this hotchpotch horizon, this kaleidoscope of perspectives.
Clearly visible from the roof, amid the sheen of Mumbai Bay, is the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower — the city’s most magnificent hotel, and one of the sites attacked by Pakistan-based militants in November 2008. Others of the attack sites are eerily close by: Leopold Café, Xavier’s College, the Times of India. We have come to Mumbai in February 2009, only ten weeks after events that resulted in at least 173 deaths. And yet the locals we talk to, people who experienced the confusion and trauma of that time, are admirably stoic. They say that, yes, it was very confusing and traumatic. Then they shrug, and smile, and move on to the next conversation.
The leaders of our trip are frank about how the November attacks gave them pause. For four years they have organised an annual trip to India for students at the English sixth form college where we work, an opportunity for the college’s young people — and teachers — to work in Mumbai’s schools with children from the least privileged of backgrounds. The trip has benefited countless people; still, in light of such events, was it still viable? Did anyone still want to go? Should they want to, or even be encouraged to? Finally, it emerged that thirty students were still up for it. And so here we all are.
Another view: a mosaic of shadow and sunshine covering the grounds of the Garden School in Colaba. Run by a hardy troop of Catholic nuns, the school gives a free education to children from the city’s slums. The majority of Mumbai’s slum kids will never gain an education of any sort. At the Garden School, however, they gain a good level of English and enough basic arithmetic to have a chance of entering the formal school system and, by that route, of leaving the slums. We ask one of the sisters how they select their intake.
“We take the poorest,” she tells us, with a patient smile.
Under the trees, in the shadow and sunshine, thirty English teenagers are doing what English teenagers do best: they are messing about. In the unreal heat they run and dodge and tussle for footballs or skip ropes or slide along parachutes with two hundred or so tiny, lively kids from the slums of Mumbai. Later they huddle together quietly on mats, doing paintings, making bracelets or puppets. The blonde heads, the red and the brown, tip together with the brilliant vinyl black.
“They’re just getting on with it, aren’t they?” says one of my colleagues. And I know she means the students, and the children, but I can’t help thinking also of the flicker-eyed locals smiling over their cappuccinos and telling us how exactly news of the bombs, and then the fact of them, intruded on the routine of their working day.
“For now,” I mutter, darkly. “It won’t last.”
But it does — it does last. It lasts all day. It lasts all week.
The view from the Godwin only hints at it, but down on the ground a few days later we are confronted by the reality, the actual sightlines of poverty in Mumbai. We travel by coach (think of it: by coach!) into the slums. We venture no further than the outermost edge of this metamorphic labyrinth on the city’s outskirts; we go to the Rey Road area, where there is another school tucked away in the straining slum fabric.
The Garden School with its snug urban setting makes one sort of impression; the Rey Road School is something else. Here you see where and how the children live — their patched and precarious homes, their wooden walls and cast-off roofs, their neighbours bearing down on one another by the incalculable million.
To be honest: the first time I came to Rey Road, in October 2005, I didn’t deal with it very well. To be very honest: I found it shattering. And yet the thirty young people who have never before set eyes on the place walk calmly between the school benches, bending to chat with the children, to admire their writing, to smile, to laugh.
“Nothing much throws them, does it?” says another of my colleagues. And I know she means the students, and the children, but I can’t help thinking also…
At the resort in Chiplun, over the last few days of the trip, everyone unwinds: and it is surprising how much there is to unwind, how many coils of new experience, how many spools of fresh memory. Probably it is true that I do not yet have my book — do not yet have the full impetus that will become The Weightless World. But what I do have is possibly just as valuable, and it is a truth that the young people, in their unbetterable, unflappable way, have revealed to me: that the place is both the place and how you look at it, the point at which you stand to survey it. And something else: I’m not going to write a book about India. (It’s true: I don’t: The Weightless World is not a book about India.) I’m going to write a book about perspectives, standpoints, sightlines that do not converge on India so much as glance off it in passing.
Mostly the students splash in the pool or bounce on the trampoline or bask in the mountain-sided sun; but, at least for me, they are not really here. Chiplun is a Disney fairytale, a gorgeous sunspot by which to see the true picture; and in this true picture they are walking the Rey Road benches, they are running and dodging in the Colaba glare, they are slowly blinking on the Godwin rooftop, looking down into all that dazzle.